Written by Mac Rogers
Directed by Jordana Williams
Presented by Gideon Productions at The Brick, NYC
October 19-27, 2018
Have you ever had one of those conversations as a couple in which neither party wants to be the one to choose a restaurant? Now imagine that three people are involved instead of two and the decision is not where to have dinner but who is going to have sex with whom that night. This is just one of the negotiations that the characters in playwright and audio dramatist Mac Rogers's marvelous Musical Chairs must navigate as they enter into a committed polyamorous relationship.
Cohabiting couple Jess (Rebecca Comtois) and Owen (Mac Rogers) have separate bedrooms, and, when the play begins, they have just discovered that they have separately been sleeping with Ruth (Kristen Vaughan). Neither Owen, a columnist, nor Jess, a political activist and community organizer, makes much money, and neither has previously been in a poly relationship. Ruth is both more established in her career and more experienced, having had a serious relationship with a couple. As a result, she acts, to a degree, as a guide as the triad grows more serious, encouraging honest (self-)reflection at each step. Recognizing the gravity of some of the decisions involved, she also insists on certain "assurances" as part of this progression. Despite this carefully cultivated awareness, challenges of course arise, and Musical Chairs perceptively examines both the rewards and the difficulties, the work required, in moving beyond the heteronormative model of the monogamous couple. As Ruth says of "sensual connection," this sort of thing is not "self-explanatory" (she similarly observes that, even within a triad, infidelity can be more exciting, but it is ultimately not fulfilling in the way that a poly relationship is, even with its demands). When, for example, trouble for Jess in her life outside the household affects the goings-on within it, a conversation over a grocery list takes on symbolic resonance, with Ruth telling Jess that she will send the list again although she has already sent it because Jess claims that she didn't get it.
Jess's political challenges function as more than just a vehicle for metaphors about the persistence necessary for effective communication. Her work, especially against a piece of nightmarish near-future dystopian snowballing legislation, is also integral to the play's concern with how politics affects these characters' domestic and romantic life (which is true for any configuration of partners). Jess's fervent commitment to improving the world through protest and political action raises the tricky question of whether or how much we should focus on our personal happiness when the forces of oppression are constantly on the offensive. Even if one is not an activist, politics intrudes deeply into the most private parts of people's lives. Because of legal roadblocks to alternative expressions of partnership, for instance, only two of our three protagonists could marry one another, and it would be more beneficial for one of the women to marry Owen. Later, when the three debate whether fewer people will donate towards the costs of a grave health issue that has arisen for one of them if they know that that person is part of a triad, Jess angrily points out that the problem is not them but the system, not least because widespread crowdfunding of healthcare is seen in any way as an acceptable state of affairs. The tension inherent in any attempt to balance the struggle for change with the struggle for a fulfilling personal life is put into even starker relief in the context of their polyamory.
As Rogers says in a program note, many "'threesome' stories are all about sex and jealousy" (and, in mainstream television, three-or-moresomes are represented primarily in religious polygamy). Musical Chairs, though, is about good people doing their best; these are thoroughly likable and recognizable characters whom you want to succeed, and the play grants them scenes of touching openness and vulnerability. So, for example, when a significant promise is broken at one point, the moment lands with heartbreaking weight. When they are threatened with the pressure to compromise their principles, their situation has a similar effect (probably enhanced for some in the audience by a depressing familiarity). The production's power is anchored in excellent, naturalistic performances by the cast, who both embody their characters as complex, relatable individuals and create palpable chemistry and, at other times, strain among them. Vaughan, in particular, is absolutely sensational as Ruth, by turns self-possessed, sultry, harried, and resigned, but always resilient.
Musical Chairs examines what it takes in a relationship to stick together through its problems, and what happens if one doesn't leave when that might be the easiest option, as well as, on a larger scale, what makes a life meaningful. By the end, it has also established that a triad is a unique entity unto itself, not reducible to any to pairings, and, perhaps more importantly, that our choices need not be binary. When it comes to the production itself, however, there is only one reasonable choice: intimate in multiple senses, and funny and honest right from its first minutes, Musical Chairs is a must-see. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler